UBS hopes profits will defuse AGM anger

Click to follow
The Independent Online

UBS sought to defuse criticism over management responsibility for the bank's troubles and bonuses by posting its highest pre-tax profit since the credit crisis began and a big slowdown in client withdrawals.

The world's No.2 wealth manager by assets published the first-quarter figure two days before an annual general meeting (AGM) which is expected to be stormy.

The Swiss bank said on Monday pre-tax profit was "at least" Sfr2.5bn (£1.6bn), nearly three times higher than the previous quarter. Profit was likely driven by fixed-income revenue, especially in forex trading, where UBS has a 15 per cent market share.

UBS added that withdrawals by rich clients, disappointed with the bank's recent losses and with its U.S. tax woes, had shrunk to a third of what they were in the previous quarter, surprising some analysts and helping lift shares 4 per cent.

"Net new money outflows in all businesses were substantially lower than in fourth quarter 2009," UBS said.

Chief Executive Oswald Gruebel on Wednesday will face some disgruntled shareholders who are ready to reject a UBS bonus system and plans to clear management of responsibilities for the bank's crisis, but the surprise profit statement could take the edge off some of the tension.

"If there is good news, then get it out there," said Peter Thorne, an analyst at Helvea. Some investors are angry at how UBS management, led by former chairmen Marcel Ospel and Peter Kurer, drove the bank close to collapse and they may still reject proposals to clear executives from responsibility in 2007-2009.

Swiss investors, accounting for one quarter of UBS shares, are expected to be particularly unhappy about the AGM proposals, the head of activist Swiss foundation Ethos has said in a newspaper interview.

Discharging executives from their responsibilities would make it more difficult to pursue legal action against them.

"What came out today will not change the negative feeling investors have against the discharge of management," an analyst said.

UBS is due to report full first-quarter figures on May 4.

While UBS' investment bank is on the mend, persistent bleeding of client money has been Gruebel's toughest challenge. Since the middle of 2008, Sfr225bn have left the bank, or about 11 per cent of total assets.

"What is of surprise is the net new money which we believe is a sentiment change for investors that UBS is going in the right direction now," said Vontobel analyst Teresa Nielsen.

UBS' pre-tax profit would be above a mean estimate of five analysts of Sfr2.375bn, ThomsonOne data show.

UBS said on March 30 first-quarter fixed-income division revenues would be nearly $2.3bn.

At 1300 GMT, share in UBS were up 2.8 per cent, outperforming a 0.5 per cent rise in the Stoxx Europe 600 banking index.

"This short interim statement points to the question of whether the glass is now half empty or half full," analysts at bank Wegelin said in their morning report.

"The return to profit is welcome and the weakening of outflows is encouraging. But how sustainable is the earnings development and when will client withdrawals stop?"

Strong first-quarter earnings are putting Gruebel, a former Credit Suisse CEO who was pulled out of retirement in February 2009 to turn around UBS, on track to achieve its mid-term target of annual pre-tax profit of Sfr15bn, analysts say.

After posting the biggest annual loss in 2008, UBS returned to profit in the final quarter of 2009, the first quarterly profit for the bank since Gruebel took over. Total first-quarter outflows at UBS would be a third of the Sfr56bn the bank bled in the final quarter of 2009.

UBS estimates net outflows at the division of around Sfr8bn, or less than 1 per cent of assets. Withdrawals at the Wealth Management Americas division would be Sfr7bn and Sfr3bn in Global Asset Management.

"We expect the reduced outflows to enhance confidence in the overall franchise," said KBW analyst Matthew Clark.

"With relatively few global, scale plays on the attractive wealth management sector, we believe a rehabilitated UBS could ultimately enjoy a premium rating to the banks sector."

Additional reporting by Rupert Pretterklieber; Editing by Erica Billingham

Comments